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The Essence of Light

“Light can be gentle, dangerous, dreamlike, bare, living, dead, misty, clear, hot, dark, violet, springlike, falling, straight, sensual, limited, poisonous, calm and soft.”—Sven Nykvist

(© Ian Plant) Light is the beating heart of photography. It is the seed which gives birth to root, stem, and branch. It is the structure and the substance, the core and foundation upon which the entire construction is built. It is more than just the quintessence of photography—it is the soul.

Yeah, you get the idea: light is kind of a big deal.

So why then do most photographers limit themselves to shooting only the so-called “magic hours” of morning and evening? Sure, magnificent sunrises and sunsets are awesome, but are they really the be-all and end-all of light?

More than anything else, I’d like to dispel the notion that the magic hours are the only times worth shooting. Light is infinitely, wonderfully complex and varied. You should embrace light in all its forms—and not just when it is gloriously epic. To truly master the art of photography, you must immerse yourself in light’s subtler side as well.

I took this photo in a raging blizzard, which diffused the light almost to the point where detail was lost. The result is an ethereal, high-key look. “Polar Embrace”—Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, USA. Canon 70D, 560mm, ISO 1600, f/5.6, 1/800 second. See more of my polar bear photos

As photographers, our job is to understand light, anticipate it, and creatively apply its many forms and nuances. We like to say that we are “chasing the light,” but that implies we are chasing great light. What we really need to do is learn to bring light to life, no matter its quality or character. We’re not chasing the light—we’re revealing it. What’s more, we’re transforming it into art.

The sun was rising just above the large sand dune behind the dead tree. I used the resulting lens flare and shadows creatively. “Touching the Sun”—Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia. Canon 5DIII, 47mm, ISO 100, f/16, 1/50 second. See more of my Namibia photos.

Great photography rests on the twin pillars of composition and light. Composition—which is the topic of my critically-acclaimed eBook Visual Flow: Mastering the Art of Composition—involves the artistic selection and arrangement of visual elements within the picture space. Light is indelibly entwined with composition; in the hands of a skilled photographer, composition and light merge seamlessly into one.

I found this jaguar resting in a dark forest. Creative use of fill light was required to balance the cat’s exposure with the brighter leaves lit by the sun. “Guardian of the Underworld”—Pantanal, Brazil. Canon 5DIII, 560mm, ISO 1000, f/5.6, 1/250 second. See more of my Pantanal photos.

This post is the first in a series on the creative use of light in photography, featuring concepts dealt with in more detail in my newest eBook, Chasing the Light. You’ll notice that I am, for the moment, deliberately steering clear of epic magic hour light. Rather, I am going to focus my efforts on more nuanced forms of light, which require the photographer to take a significant role in the creative process. We all love to capture stunning light, but if you think about it, the photographer can take little credit for a beautiful sunset—after all, Nature is doing most of the work. Personally, I find it much more satisfying when the light isn’t so glorious, but I nonetheless find a way to make it work.

Light is so much more than just the magic hours. By truly embracing light in its many varied forms, you can find great photographs anytime, anywhere. Mastering the light opens up the entire day to artistic possibility. No longer will you feel constrained by “bad light”—rather, you will be limited only by your imagination and creativity.

     FREE! 20 Indispensable Photo Tips     Visual Flow: Mastering the Art of Composition